Surviving the transition from high school to university

Making the transition from a learner to a student can be a scary and intimidating change, one which could best be described as a ‘culture shock’. Teachers, parents, friends and family try their best to prepare you for this, but often the focus is more on the academic side of things, while social changes are likely to presents equally daunting obstacles.

Simply put, you will go through a number of phases when attempting to acclimate to your new social environment. You may initially feel fascinated and intrigued by observing the new social structure, but romanticising this phase can quickly result in a lot of anxiety and frustrations when you struggle to find your place. Then comes adjustment, the more you are exposed to this new environment, the more likely you are to familiarise yourself with the setting, learn what to expect and finally become comfortable in your new environment. You may even open yourself up to new exciting opportunities.

Your actions in this second phase, which is characterised by anxiety, are of great importance in managing your life and finding your ‘place’. Suddenly having more responsibility, but also having more personal freedom than ever before can be tricky, even for the smartest, most street savvy student.

Luckily there are solutions to the challenges which may arise. Your actions and plan on how to deal with these challenges will help you take charge of your new life as a student.

Challenge: Isolation

Action 1: Engage by making new friends; hostels and private student organisations have many social events during which you can meet fellow students. Sometimes making new friends is as simple as sharing an interest, sitting next to someone new every day and actually introducing yourself or even asking friends to introduce you to people they have met. Friends are crucial in avoiding isolation, minimising home-sickness and feeling like you belong.

Action 2: Participate by joining a society, study group or participating in a sport; feeling like you are part of something will help you find your place. Membership, groups and teams provide support which can help you find your own identity on campus and broaden your horizons at the same time.

Challenge: Overindulging or being overwhelmed

Action 3: Moderation; your personal freedom at University is exciting, but you need to establish boundaries and balance early on. It’s all good and well to attend social events and play sports, but social experiences should also be moderated. It is easy to become overwhelmed by one aspect, such as a busy social life, if you do not have some kind of balance. It is important to develop a study timetable to balance social and academic obligations.

Challenge: Risk of intolerance

Action 4: Respect; a significant part of finding your place, is respecting others’ places in the structure. The process of social acclimation at University will expose you to people who are different from you, people with different languages, religions and values. It is important to make a conscious effort to learn about the people around you, you may not always agree, but you should always respect and remember that understanding is important.

You should above all remember that anxiety related to change is a normal and healthy human characteristic, but you should never let fears of change sabotage your acclimation process. Engage and participate, moderate and practice tolerance and respect in running your own life as a student.


Mr Rudman is a senior lecturer in Stellenbosch University’s Department of Accounting.

Wilmarie Grobbelaar is a language specialist in Stellenbosch University’s Department of Accounting.

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Riaan Rudman
Mr Rudman is a senior lecturer in Stellenbosch University’s Department of Accounting.

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